Friday, December 11, 2015
C.A. Orders Disclosure of Documents PRA Requester Possesses
Says Possession ‘Misses the Point’ Where Disclosure Is Sought to Immunize Requester From Liability for Publication
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal has ordered that documents be provided to a man pursuant to his Public Records Act request even though he already possesses copies of them.
Seeking the records is John Caldecott, who was fired from his post as executive director of human resources for Newport-Mesa Unified School District after he complained to the district about the conduct of its superintendent, Fred Navarro. He is requesting release of the district’s written response to his complaint, as well as his e-mail to the board after receiving its response.
At the hearing on Caldecott’s writ petition in the Orange Superior Court, Judge Geoffrey T. Glass gained an acknowledgment from the petitioner’s attorney that his client did not actually desire physical delivery of the documents. Glass denied the petition because Caldecott had no need to obtain what he already had, and the matter was “moot.”
‘Misses the Point’
The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. Three on Wednesday granted a writ petition which challenged Glass’s decision. In an unpublished opinion, Justice David A. Thompson said the fact that Caldecott possesses the documents he seeks “completely misses the point.” He explained:
“The issue is not his current possession of the Documents. Caldecott seeks the Documents so he has the ability to publicly promulgate them without fear of any liability for doing so.”
Thompson was unpersuaded by the school district’s argument that the PRA permits “any person” to seek public records, while Caldecott was seeking them not for personal purposes, but for the benefit of the general public. The jurist observed:
“[N]othing in the [PRA] prohibits a person from acting on behalf of the public. Caldecott’s request is akin to a reporter seeking documents for the purpose of disseminating information to the public.”
Glass also denied relief based on Government Code §6254(c) which bars from disclosure “[p]ersonnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
He found that one of Caldecott’s contentions was that Navarro generated a hostile work environment and that the controversy relates to “an internal personnel matter exempt from disclosure” under the PRA.
Thompson pointed to the 2006 decision in BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court, 143 Cal.App.4th 742 where an investigator’s report to a school district concerning allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse of students by a superintendent was held to be disclosable because the public interest outweighed the administrator’s privacy rights.
The justice wrote:
“Here, as in BRV, there is a strong public interest in judging how Navarro responded to Caldecott’s claims, especially in light of his decision to almost immediately terminate Caldecott without cause. Likewise, there is the same strong public interest in assessing how School District’s elected board treated the serious misconduct allegations against its highest ranking administrator. The numerous newspaper articles and blogs included in the record confirm that. Disclosure will shed light on School District’s performance of its duties.”
He went on to say:
“[T]he fact one of Caldecott’s claims concerns a hostile work environment does not necessarily make it a personnel matter that should not be disclosed. Certainly Caldecott is not concerned that the matter be kept secret. Additionally, in the context of all of Caldecott’s claims and as discussed above, there is no valid reason why this particular claim of a hostile work environment should remain concealed.”
The appeals panel has reviewed the documents, he reported, and found that Caldecott’s allegations against Navarro were broader than Glass depicted.
Although only two documents were sought by Caldecott, according to the statement of facts in the opinion—the board’s response to Caldecott’s complaint and his response to the board—the opinion says near the end of the discussion:
“School District maintains certain of the Documents were communications to or from its lawyers and therefore protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege.”
The opinion instructs Glass to go through the documents and redact any matter that is covered by the attorney-client privilege or which would intrude upon privacy rights of third parties. It also requires that attorney fees be awarded to Caldecott.
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